City officials served up a creative rationale last winter when asked why they had banned street vendors from a six-block area around the MCI Center: The vendors, they said, would pose a safety hazard to the throngs of pedestrians rushing to events at the arena. While vendors insisted the exclusion zone eliminated competition for the arena’s concessionaires who charge $4.50 for a hot dog the sidewalk-flow rationale was good enough for the D.C. Council and Mayor Marion Barry.
However, it apparently failed the laugh test at D.C.’s financial control board. After fielding complaints from a vocal brigade of itinerant merchants, the board is making room for street vendors and their low-priced fare outside the arena’s doors.
Dennis Horn, a consultant who headed a panel on business reform for the control board, says it didn’t take much research to debunk the official explanation for the vending ban. “I expect the police will be able to find a number of spaces to open up to vendors around the center,” says Horn. “It seemed suspect to us that Baltimore could find a way to sell hot dogs and D.C. couldn’t.”
How did the control board, which has spent much of its time making the District safe for big business, wind up helping the little guy? Perhaps it has figured out that vending is one business that the District does well.
Whatever its motivations, the board is poised to enact a slate of vendor-friendly initiatives. In addition to killing the MCI no-vend zone, the board wants to reduce the city’s $1,500 annual fee imposed on vendors. “Boston, Chicago, New York, they don’t have that [fee],” says John Beyer, who helped the board research city vending regulations. “That’s an awful lot, especially for a first-time vendor.” Another target is the ban on new vending licenses, the folks at One Thomas Circle want more competition, not less.
And the board has ordered the city to loosen restrictions so vendors can sell more items from their stands. That means hurried pedestrians may soon get a shot at roasted chestnuts, falafel, and shawarma.
Vending advocates say the board’s recommendations represent the biggest boost for street vending in the city in decades.
The board’s efforts on behalf of the city’s wheeled merchants stand in stark contrast to recently passed legislation championed by mayoral candidate and At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil. In a gesture to downtown merchants, Brazil’s initiative freezes the issuance of new vending licenses, gives fixed-site businesses the right to challenge street vendors selling near them, and imposes other restrictions that make it harder to run a profitable cart.
Beyer says it’s no surprise that vendors came out on the short end of Brazil’s reforms.
“The Brazil legislation reflects the composition of the Business Regulatory Reform Commission,” which advised Brazil, says Beyer, president of Nathan Associates, an Arlington-based economic consulting firm. “They were business owners and executives who I suspect were acting out of self-interest, to protect their own business concerns.” That sort of talk, more Ralph Nader than Andrew Brimmer, has vendors and their allies pinching themselves.
The collision between Brazil’s new vending laws and the control board’s recommendations should come soon: Control board General Counsel Daniel Rezneck says the board’s final report on vending should be issued next week, and the differences between the board and Brazil’s legislation should be resolved early in the fall.
Reconciliation, however, wouldn’t be necessary if the control board had decided on vending policy a few months earlier. After all, the board signed off on the Brazil legislation earlier this year, an approval that sent the bill hurtling through Congress and into law. “Since the control board signed off on our bill,” says Brazil aide Mary Rudolph, “we aren’t sure how Congress will react to contradictory legislation.”
Beyer says the control board’s position isn’t pro-vendor, but rather pro-free market. “The point of our recommendations is to support more competition and variety for consumers. It just happens that that means less regulation for vendors,” he says. The Brazil legislation, which was designed to shred red tape, has produced a new batch. “Their charge was to reduce regulations, but the net result in the Brazil bill is more regulation of vendors, not less,” he notes.
In reaching its vending policy, the board tried a new approach to municipal governance: gathering public input before making decisions. Hundreds of vendors packed a control board hearing on vending issues last April, far outnumbering opponents. Asked why the control board had landed so squarely on the vendors’ side, Rezneck says, “Just take a look at the transcript of that hearing. That should answer the question.”
“At least in this case, the control board listened to the people, and that’s to their credit,” said Carl Messineo, a consumer-rights lawyer in the District. “And the council, which is supposedly more democratic, didn’t.”